Stowford Rise Community Centre as a FolkWeek social dance venue: the first year, 2012.

As a new venue, Stowford Rise Community Centre proved superb for social dance. The floor was excellent  - at least in comparison to that in Blackmore Gardens, which in turn was predictably poor. The floor in Stowford Rise could have done with a little more 'slip' but no-one felt like complaining. The acoustics were good, the ventilation was entirely adequate and the cafe area became well used and with friendly staff.

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Unfortunately however, what could have been an almost entirely positive experience in the first year may be remembered for problems related to inadequate preparation and planning.

The first of these negative observations centres upon the inadequacy of FolkWeek management in publicising Stowford Rise. Despite having been allocated money from Sidmouth Town Council for specific publicity initiatives - and confirming what they intended to do at a Town Council Annual Meeting in Sidford earlier in the year - many social dancers arrived at Sidmouth FolkWeek knowing little or nothing of the new venue.

The full page advert in the summer edition of eds (the magazine of the EFDSS) seemed to have reached few social dancers - they tend instead to read Set & Turn Single - a much smaller non-glossy magazine that has been a focus for social dance in the UK for the last 17 years. In any case the glossy colour advert (shown here) didn't mention the new Stowford Rise venue.

However, there are lessons to be learned on both sides. Whilst FolkWeek management demonstrated a lack of preparation, attendees could have known what was on offer if they had bothered to read the publicity material that had been available here since April 2012.

This had in turn been mentioned in several issues of Set & Turn Single magazine. Despite the fact that this is sent to every folk dance club in the country I know from personal contacts that not all dancers actually read it (and even fewer read it cover to cover).

So even if the promised leaflets and magazine inserts had been made available, would they have made much difference? Probably not - and the whole episode is an example of why, even in the internet age, word of mouth, directly person to person, remains the most effective form of communication. Thus, by the middle of FolkWeek every dancer knew all about the new Stowford Rise venue simply from having spoken to other dancers. Now that the venue is 'known' further orchestrated publicity will be largely superfluous. Everyone who attended will take their own assessments back to their local dance clubs.

As a further example, person to person communication is also the most effective in encouraging people to attend folk dances further afield. During FolkWeek 2012 I was invited to attend two (both of them several hundreds of miles away and by people I had only met at FolkWeek). Without such invitations I wouldn't have given either venue a second thought. Personal contact is really what makes the difference.

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Mid week, a few colourful maps produced by Waitrose were distributed to dance workshop venues, but too late to be of real use. They also used such small typefaces that some social dancers couldn't read them! The road signs took a bit of figuring out also - unless you happened to know the area already.

Earlier in the week, Stewards in the Box Office (having obviously no local knowledge) told several people to drive up Core Hill Road to Stowford Rise. You can't do this!

Hurriedly printed maps were even left at other dance venues showing the same route - and later amended to say 'walking route only'.


For 2013 it would be helpful if FolkWeek produced a proper schedule of bus services (both the festival bus and the Stagecoach 52 route from Sidmouth and especially giving the times of last buses) and a clear statement on Waitrose policy for parking cars at the store for longer than 2 hours (maybe with a special FolkWeek windscreen badge). A third map, to complement the two reproduced below, would show clearly the best walking and driving routes to Stowford Rise and would show the festival bus route, as well as that of the Stagecoach 52 service. The working programme and official website could even provide a link to this webpage - or even to this one - both of which were accessed by hundreds of people in the run-up to FolkWeek 2012 - and would have been of benefit to many more who no doubt accessed only the official website.

The question here is really one of helpfulness towards festival attendees - do FolkWeek management wish to be as helpful as possible by giving all sources of information and including those that give much information that they would never give themselves, or do they wish to maintain a 'holier than thou' attitude and deny potential attendees ready access to (for example) information on alternative campsites? This goes back a long way, including to John Braithwaite's annoyance that I so freely gave information on the special Alpha bus that serves alternative campsites when I was working in the festival box office.

If FolkWeek management wished to be especially helpful to any intending newcomers to the festival they could even link to my Newcomers' Guide. This gives so much useful information that is available nowhere else that it has become one of the most read of my Folk Festival pages. We await developments..... 

venue1.jpg (60439 bytes) venue2.jpg (53245 bytes) Even on the two pages of the 2012 working programme devoted to 'Venues' there is no description or even mention of Stowford Rise Community Centre.

There is only a single (and useless) arrow at the top of one of the maps. Neither of the maps even has a scale.

One couple did try and follow the arrow to Stowford Rise, intending to walk what they thought would be a short distance before they reached the Volunteer pub.

Unfortunately many of the events were poorly attended - judge for yourself by viewing the hundreds of photos available online, albeit of only two of the events at Stowford. The initial contra dance (event 111 on the first Friday) was attended by only about 40 people but this was more than might have been expected so early in the weekend. In contrast, the contra dance on the Sunday (event 364) was about as good as dances can get - an almost full hall, good dancers, room to dance and the usual smiles from Lynne Render with music from Masquerade.

There were other highlights at Stowford Rise - but apparently not recorded by the official photographer despite I had advised him to cover event 782, the second Playford Ball with local band Stick The Fiddle and Nigel Close calling. Here is one account (from someone berating me for having missed an event. In my defence, I have nothing suitable to wear for a formal Playford ball!)

The home-made biscuits and cakes at Stowford Rise were superb, the orange and green chairs were cheerful - and the Playford ball, with Stick the Fiddle and Nigel Close in splendidly appropriate dress, played fiddle, guitar, bass guitar, keyboard, drums, tambourine and whistle to create lively and artistic music for the throng of enthusiastic dancers.  You missed that - but it was fantastic!!

However, not everyone is happy with what one local band leader calls 'Home Counties by the Sea' - his description of dancing in Sidmouth FolkWeek and with the implication that Sidmouth should do far more to include and promote local bands and callers and less to copy what every other festival does in employing largely the 'big names' - people that can be seen and heard everywhere else. This has quite a bit of support in and around Devon.

Another area of unhappiness (although very much a minority viewpoint?) is that the venue should not be used again because it had no 'festival atmosphere'. This comment is from the mudcat forum:

Subject: RE: So how was Sidmouth 2012 for you?
From: GUEST,Tatterfoal
Date: 12 Aug 12

The new dance venue was good for dancing but felt totally devoid from the festival and the 4 each way did not go down well, also waiting for the bus put us back into Sidmouth after all the sessions were winding up. After our first excursion there we made a point of staying away so as not to encourage any repeat.

It is interesting to compare the qualities of Stowford Rise and the Bulverton. Stowford Rise had an excellent dance floor, the Bulverton a mediocre one. The Bulverton had a vibrant party atmosphere once sufficient people were there, Stowford lacked this even at the well attended dances. The dancing at Stowford was of a good standard, that at the Bulverton predictably lower. Somehow the best elements of each might be transferred - adding party decorations to Stowford would not be effective - what it needs primarily is a greater number of competent dancers. Providing a much better dance floor at Bulverton would be of marginal benefit unless there were more good dancers able properly to utilise it. On some evenings, Bulverton too could have done with more dancers (and on every night it needed more good ones). So for both venues, the prime requirement is the same - more good dancers - at Stowford Rise simply to swell the numbers, at Bulverton to enhance the quality of ceilidh dance.

Sidmouth FolkWeek has been deserted by many of the best social dancers and the new Stowford Rise venue alone may not be enough to tempt them back - there needs to be a quality spacious venue in town too, and that can only be at Blackmore Gardens with a much improved dance floor. Sidmouth has also been deserted by many of the best ceilidh dancers - witness the much higher standard at (for example) the Bristol IVFDF a few years ago and generally at Sidmouth pre-2004. Several people commented that whilst the 'learn the basics' dance workshops of 2012 were in the main competently run and moderately well attended, many of the people who could most have benefited did not attend - they were still in their tents sleeping off the LNE the night before. Indeed, there were often many more experienced dancers attending than there were newcomers.

Tuesday evening saw a poor attendance of around 30 to 40 at Stowford Rise (and with more men then women!) and only about 10 people at the Methodist Church Hall - that event was cancelled. It may have been the combined effects of a mid-week lull and a Spiers and Boden concert at the Ham marquee. As usual, there were 4 competing dances but 3 of them on Tuesday were directly competing social dances - maybe a case of unfortunate programming.

I stayed all evening at Blackmore Gardens where the Playford Liberation Front played at a reasonable volume and where a number of my local dance club had decided to buy tickets. Several of them said 'never again' because of the floor, the loud music and the poor abilities of so many dancers. Yet this was one of the quietest of the Blackmore ceilidh bands! Several other dancers 'escaped' from the Playford Liberation Front ceilidh only to find their chosen alternative dance had been cancelled.

As in previous years, there were just not enough social dancers to go around and this was especially the case with the Stowford Rise venue having added to FolkWeek's available capacity. Several other of the dances at Stowford Rise only attracted about 40 people, which made for a rather lonely atmosphere and in a venue that (inevitably) will always feel a little divorced from the town centre.

Attracting more social dancers to Sidmouth remains a problem, especially now that the poor quality floors in Blackmore Gardens in 2011 and 2012 (and now used for many social dance workshops) have put some people off attending again. Attracting more dancers to Stowford Rise is a separate issue - the venue is potentially so superb that more dancers might be encouraged to attend Sidmouth - but most might not buy season tickets and many might prefer accommodation convenient for Stowford Rise, because this would be their principal (maybe only) dance venue and the one from which they would return home at 10.30pm. These people might not be 'folkies' who attend festivals but social dancers more used to quality hotel venues. This introduces a new area of discussion for a potentially new selection of attendees - as distinct from encouraging more folkies to return.

It has long been the case that many people who attend FolkWeek would not do so if only the 'official' campsite at the Bulverton was available. Many choose alternative and arguably more civilised accommodation - other campsites, guesthouses, private homes, tents pitched in private gardens, motor homes parked all up the Bickwell valley and in many of the more reasonably priced hotels. For example, Sidholme apparently offered B&B + evening meal for 66 per night in 2012.

Could an additional 50 social dancers be encouraged to use the Stowford Rise venue?

Consider the following:

Experienced and competent social dancers are generally older people. They are well past wanting to camp (and certainly not at Bulverton) and they are more used to attending dance weekends in hotels where inconvenience is kept to a minimum. So what might attract them to utilise the Stowford Rise venue? These people would be used to a good dance floor, good convenient accommodation and (if they spent a few days or even a week at Sidmouth) something to do during the day and preferably car transport back to their B&B accommodation at night. Many of the hundreds of local dancers who now shun Sidmouth FolkWeek completely might be attracted to one or more dances at Stowford Rise - maybe staying for a night or so. In good weather there is plenty to see and do for free in Sidmouth (a short bus ride away). The only problem is the accommodation and this links conveniently into a separate discussion - one precipitated by the appalling weather of June 2012 which could so easily have seen the whole festival all but abandoned.

In summary, the principal impediment to far greater use of the Stowford Rise venue may be a lack of accommodation suited to the type of people who might most be attracted to it. Sidmouth needs far more 'FolkWeek B&B' accommodation convenient for the Stowford Rise dance venue and it needs a reserve of maybe 100 gardens and driveways able to accommodate campers and motor homes if ever there is a repeat of June 2012 weather but in late July and early August. Indeed, camping in private gardens is becoming more accepted world-wide and offers opportunities for FolkWeek to attract people who might do 'glamping' (glamorous camping) but who are well past wanting to suffer 'bamping' (basic camping). The Bulverton campsite is perhaps in a class of its own - maybe it could be called 'mamping' (mud camping) or slamping (slope camping)!

Given the 'quality' of most social dancers (in that they would be expected to be fully house-trained), local residents need hardly fear bad behaviour if they offer B&B during FolkWeek. This is in contrast to poor experiences when houses have been left in a damaged state by artistes. The Sidmouth TIC already maintains a list of householders who offer B&B only during FolkWeek but few are in Sidmouth itself. Having a list available on the internet and specifically for accommodation in the Stowford Rise area and for use by social dancers might be a way forward. Unfortunately, most of the houses in the area are quite small.

All of this needs to be considered in the context of retaining attendees: social dance used to be a major part of the International Festival. The first few years of FolkWeek saw many dancers support the organisers out of loyalty, and despite the inconvenience of out of town venues. Later, the town centre Church Hall venues became so overcrowded that dancing was uncomfortable, so dancers voted with their feet. More recently, Blackmore Gardens has been added as a venue and despite a perennially inadequate dance floor, it affords space to dance.

But once they are lost, it may be difficult to attract some dancers back. Several have said to me (and after years of regular attendance at Sidmouth) that once they missed a year they really didn't feel the need to come back again. The Olympics in 2012 may therefore have inflicted a lasting legacy. The lesson is simple - retain the loyalty of your regular customers and do not subject them to the same inadequacies year after year. Or suffer the consequences.

The September issue of STS magazine (issue 77) contains an upbeat assessment of Stowford Rise (splendid floor, cakes, chairs, acoustics etc) but with the reservation that it is not somewhere you can 'drop into' and see if you like an event - it is too far from the other venues. The point is made that Stowford Rise is perfect for events expected to attract a large number of people - but that there is a risk that it could render the in-town venues less viable unless more dancers in total can be attracted to Sidmouth FolkWeek.

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